Charles Algernon Parsons

Hon. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, OM, KCB, FRS (13 June 1854 11 February 1931) was an Anglo-Irish engineer, best known for his invention of the compound steam turbine,[1] and as the namesake of C. A. Parsons and Company. He worked as an engineer on dynamo and turbine design, and power generation, with great influence on the naval and electrical engineering fields. He also developed optical equipment, for searchlights and telescopes.

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons
Born13 June 1854
Died11 February 1931 (1931-02-12) (aged 76)
NationalityIrish and British
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin
St. John's College, Cambridge
Known forSteam turbine
Spouse(s)Katharine Bethell
(m. 1883) (d. 1933)
ChildrenRachel Mary Parsons (1885–1956)
Algernon George Parsons (b. 1886–1918)
AwardsRumford Medal (1902)
Albert Medal (1911)
Franklin Medal (1920)
Faraday Medal (1923)
Copley Medal (1928)
Bessemer Gold Medal (1929)
Scientific career
InstitutionsHeaton, Newcastle


Parsons was born in London into an Anglo-Irish family,[2][3][4] youngest son of the famous astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. The family seat is Birr Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, and the town of Birr was called Parsonstown, after the family, from 1620 to 1899.

With his three brothers, Parsons was educated at home in Ireland by private tutors[5] (including John Purser), all of whom were well versed in the sciences and also acted as practical assistants to the Earl in his astronomical work. One of them later became, as Sir Robert Ball, Astronomer Royal for Ireland. Parsons then read mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin and St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating from the latter in 1877 with a first-class honours degree.[6] He joined the Newcastle-based engineering firm of W.G. Armstrong as an apprentice, an unusual step for the son of an earl. Later he moved to Kitsons in Leeds where he worked on rocket-powered torpedoes.

Steam turbine engine

In 1884 Parsons moved to Clarke, Chapman and Co., ship engine manufacturers near Newcastle, where he was head of their electrical equipment development. He developed a turbine engine there in 1884 and immediately utilized the new engine to drive an electrical generator, which he also designed. Parsons' steam turbine made cheap and plentiful electricity possible and revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare.[7]

Another type of steam turbine at the time, invented by Gustaf de Laval, was an impulse design that subjected the mechanism to huge centrifugal forces and so had limited output due to the weakness of the materials available. Parsons explained that his appreciation of the scaling issue led to his 1884 breakthrough on the compound steam turbine in his 1911 Rede Lecture:

"It seemed to me that moderate surface velocities and speeds of rotation were essential if the turbine motor was to receive general acceptance as a prime mover. I therefore decided to split up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series, so that the velocity of the steam nowhere should be great...I was also anxious to avoid the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity."[8]

Founding Parsons and Company

In 1889, he founded C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle to produce turbo generators to his design.[9] In the same year he set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (DisCO). In 1890, DisCo opened Forth Banks Power Station, the first power station in the world to generate electricity using turbo generators.[10] In 1894 he regained certain patent rights from Clarke Chapman. Although his first turbine was only 1.6% efficient and generated a mere 7.5 kilowatts, rapid incremental improvements in a few years led to his first megawatt turbine built in 1899 for a generating plant at Elberfeld, Germany.[8]

Marine steam turbine applications

Parsons was also interested in marine applications and founded the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in Newcastle. Famously, in June 1897, his turbine-powered yacht, Turbinia, was exhibited moving at speed at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review off Portsmouth, to demonstrate the great potential of the new technology. The Turbinia moved at 34 kn (63 km/h; 39 mph). The fastest Royal Navy ships using other technologies reached 27 kn (50 km/h; 31 mph). Part of the speed improvement was attributable to the slender hull of the Turbinia.[11]

Within two years, the destroyers HMS Viper and Cobra were launched with Parsons' turbines, soon followed by the first turbine powered passenger ship, Clyde steamer TS King Edward in 1901; the first turbine transatlantic liners RMS Victorian and Virginian in 1905, and the first turbine powered battleship, HMS Dreadnought in 1906, all of which were driven by Parsons' turbine engines.[9] Today, Turbinia is housed in a purpose-built gallery at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle.[12]

Honors received

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1898 and received their Rumford Medal in 1902, their Copley Medal in 1928 and delivered their Bakerian Lecture in 1918.[13] He was the president of the British Association for 1916–1919.[14] He was an Invited Speaker of the ICM in 1924 at Toronto.[15] He was knighted in 1911 and made a member of the Order of Merit in 1927.[16]

Surviving companies

The Parsons turbine company survives in the Heaton area of Newcastle and is now part of Siemens, a German conglomerate. Sometimes referred to as Siemens Parsons, the company recently completed a major redevelopment programme, reducing the size of its site by around three quarters and installing the latest manufacturing technology. In 1925 Charles Parsons acquired the Grubb Telescope Company and renamed it Grubb Parsons. That company survived in the Newcastle area until 1985.

Parsons was also known for inventing the Auxetophone, an early compressed air gramophone.[17]

Personal life and death

In 1883 Parsons married Katharine Bethell, the daughter of William F. Bethell. They had two children: Rachel Mary Parsons (b. 1885), and Algernon George Parsons (b. 1886), who was killed in action during World War I in 1918, aged 31.[18]

Charles Algernon Parsons died on 11 February 1931, on board the steamship Duchess of Richmond while on a cruise with his wife. The cause of death was given as neuritis.[19] A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 3 March 1931. Parsons was buried in the parish church of St Bartholomew's in Kirkwhelpington in Northumberland.

His widow, Katharine, died at her home in Ray Demesne, Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland in 1933.[20] Rachel Parsons died in 1956; stableman Denis James Pratt was convicted of her manslaughter.[21]

In 1919 Katharine and her daughter co-founded the Women's Engineering Society, which is still in existence today.[22]


Parsons' ancestral home at Birr Castle in Ireland houses a museum detailing the contribution the Parsons family have made to the fields of science and engineering, with part of the museum given over to the engineering work of Charles Parsons.[23]

Sir Charles Parsons is depicted on the reverse of an Irish silver 15 Euros silver Proof coin that was struck in 2017.

Selected works


  1. "Sir Charles Algernon Parsons". Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  2. "Charles Parsons the Person". University of Limerick. ... was an Anglo-Irish engineer,
  3. Weightman, Gavin (2011). Children of Light. Atlantic Books. p. 112. ISBN 0857893009. Charles Algernon Parsons was from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy
  4. Invernizzi, Costante Mario (2013). Closed Power Cycles: Thermodynamic Fundamentals and Applications. Springer. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-1-4471-5140-1.
  5. The Earl of Rosse (Autumn 1968). "William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse" (PDF). Hermathena (107): 5–13. JSTOR 23040086. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  6. "Parsons, the Hon. Charles Algernon (PRSS873CA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  7. "Charles Parsons (1854 – 1931)". Profiles of Scientists from Irish Universities. Archived from the original on 10 January 2008. Retrieved 6 February 2005.
  8. Smil, Vaclav (2005). Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-19-516874-7.
  9. "Chronology of Charles Parsons". Birr Castle Scientific and Heritage Foundation. Archived from the original on 25 December 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2009.
  10. Parsons, Robert Hodson (1939). "Ch. X". The Early Days of the Power Station Industry. Cambridge: University Press. p. 171.
  11. Robertson, Paul (n.d.). "Charles Algernon Parsons". Cambridge University : 125 Years of Engineering Excellence. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  12. "Collections at Discovery Museum". Archived from the original on 28 July 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  13. "Lists of Royal Society Fellows 1660-2007". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 24 March 2010. Retrieved 15 July 2010.
  14. Parsons, Charles A. (1919). "President's Address". Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. London: John Murray.
  15. Parsons, C. A. "The steam turbine" (PDF). In: Proceedings of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Toronto, August 11–16. 1924. vol. 2. pp. 465–472.
  16. "Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931)". Archived from the original on 14 February 2012. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  17. Reiss, Eric (2007). The compleat talking machine: a collector's guide to antique phonographs. Chandler, Ariz: Sonoran Pub. p. 217. ISBN 1886606226.
  18. "Katherine Bethell". The Peerage. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  19. "Sir Charles Parsons and Sir Arthurt Dorman". Obituaries. The Times (45746). London. 13 February 1931. col B, p. 14.
  20. "Obituary The Hon. Lady Parsons". Heaton Works Journal. Women's Engineering Society. December 1933. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  21. "A history of General Motors in pictures". The Telegraph. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  22. Heald, Henrietta (23 May 2014). "What was a girl to do? Rachel Parsons (1885–1956): engineer and feminist campaigner". blue-stocking. Retrieved 6 January 2015. In January 1919, Rachel and her mother, Katharine, established the Women’s Engineering Society, with Rachel as the first president and Caroline Haslett, an electrical engineer, as secretary.
  23. "Science Centre at Birr Castle". n.d. Retrieved 26 May 2019.

Further reading

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